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  • Locally grown food for UMaine campuses offers sustainable food path and helps farmers

    Photos and article by Ramona du Houx

    The “Maine Food for the UMaine System” coalition released its recommendations to the University of Maine System for its upcoming food contract, backed by more than 150 Maine producers, 50 individuals and organizations, and 1,500 students and University of Maine System community members. 

    The number of Maine farms has increased to 8,174, up from 7,196 in 2002. This growth coincides with renewed consumer interest in locally grown foods.

    “Maine’s local foods economy has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade, which was the last time the University of Maine System signed a food contract.” said John Piotti, President of Maine Farmland Trust. “The University of Maine System has a tremendous opportunity in its upcoming food contract to take advantage of, and further catalyze, Maine’s local foods movement.”

    As restaurant tours and cooking classes increase, accross the state so has the demand for locally grown food, and serving the UMaine system would be a natural fit for many farmers. Most of the problem for a farmer is getting their goods to markets far away. WIth the UMaine system spread out accorss the state, there will be more opportunities for local farmers.

    The University of Maine System (UMS) will put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new food service vendor contract this coming month, and will accept proposals from Vendors in late 2015. UMS’s current contract, which will come to a close at the end of the 2015-16 academic year, was a ten-year, $12.5 million annual contract with the food service corporation Aramark. The current contract is for to all of the campuses except for the main campus in Orono, which operates its own food service.  

    “Up here in Aroostook, there are a number of farmers like myself who are ready to go on selling to the University,” explained Sam Blackstone, a fourteenth-generation farmer from Caribou whose family began farming in England in the early 1600s. “If the University System made a commitment to spending some of its food dollars locally, and partnering with farmers like myself, that could be a gamechanger.”

    Locally grown food has become more accessable and desirable. Approximately 100 Maine farms that will participated in Open Farm Day in July and 58 percent of tourists  cited food and/or beverages as a reason for staying overnight in Maine, according to a 2014 Maine Office of Tourism.

    The recommendations by the “Maine Food for the UMaine System” coalition, submitted to the UMS Office of Strategic Procurement and the Food Service Request for Proposal Committee, set four high-priority recommendations: a quantitative commitment to 20 percent Maine Food and 20 percent ‘Real Food’ by 2020; the establishment of a UMS Food Working Group; transparent tracking and metrics; and a commitment to a supply chain partnership with Maine producers. The recommendations also detail suggestions for sustainability expectations, equity and diversity, menu planning, and education and marketing.

    “The Maine Food for the UMaine System recommendations reflect a shared vision for what Maine’s public university system can achieve,” said Riley Neugebauer, Farm to College Coordinator with Farm to Institution New England.  

    More than 1,500 students, faculty and community members of the University of Maine System across six campuses have supported the Maine Food for the UMaine System effort.

     “Students across the University of Maine System want to know where our food comes from. Local, regional and ‘Real Food’ offer great value to students, chefs, faculty and community members. We want to be proud of the University System supporting Maine farmers and purchasing food that’s grown and produced in a just, fair, sustainable way," said Bobbi-Jo Oatway, a junior at the University of Maine Presque Isle.

      “Maine’s local foods movement is a bright spot in our economy, and more and more young people are choosing farming as a viable career. The University of Maine System has a pivotal role to play in shaping the future of Maine’s farms and fisheries, and we can make a big difference by being smart and strategic about shifting our purchasing policies,” said Mark Lapping, Professor and former Provost of the University of Southern Maine, who served as the Principal Investigator of the Maine Food Strategy.  

    More than 150 Maine producers also signed onto a letter of support that encouraged the University of Maine System to adopt Maine purchasing goals and to involve and communicate more directly with producers each year.

    Mary Margaret and Gene Ripley are first-generation, organic farmers from Dover-Foxcroft who signed the letter.  Mary explained that the University of Maine has an opportunity to help shape markets through a commitment to local food.

    “For farms like Ripley Farm, the University of Maine making a commitment to supporting Maine farmers would give us the confidence to make investments on scaling up our operations,” said Ripley, “Our farm is right on the cusp of being able to supply institutions, and we’d be thrilled to provide food for Maine students.”  

    “The University of Maine System should reflect and contribute to our state’s strengths,” concluded Sam Birch, a rising junior at the University of Maine Farmington. “This is a win-win-win opportunity for Maine’s farmers, the University System, and students.”

    Maine Food for the UMaine System is a coalition made up of organizations and individuals who are working to build a stronger and more sustainable, fair and resilient food system in Maine. The steering committee organizations are Farm to Institution New England, Maine Farmland Trust, Real Food Challenge, and Environment Maine.